Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

My Brain (Doesn’t) Work

Written by: on April 4, 2023

That title is a bit of an overstatement, but I’m definitely not at my best. This has been a growing realization for me over the past year or so. I’m not as articulate as I would like to be, my thinking is a bit muddled (or more muddled than usual!) and my motivation is lacking. Some of the factors that have contributed to me arriving in this ‘surviving but not thriving’ place are known to me and others are still being discovered. What is interesting about David Rock’s book, Your Brain At Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long (1) is that many of the issues he describes in his book are my current symptoms!

Scene 3: Juggling Five Things at Once (2) was a chapter that describes my current reality—jumping from one thing to another and never making great headway in any one particular area. This has typically not been a challenge for me in the past, but in my current state I find my distractions growing, my productivity declining, and my stress rising as a result of not accomplishing what I need to accomplish. Moving forward, I will seek to prioritize my tasks early in the day (because that takes effort and brain power itself) and add blocks of time in my calendar to deal with specific issues…and then try to stay focussed on that ONE thing (C’mon Director….you can do it!).

One thing I began implementing before reading Rock’s book, only to drop it again, was engaging in relaxing activity. Consequently, Scene 6: Getting Past a Roadblock (3) was a good reminder to get on my bike and make room for downtime. This Spring has been a particularly busy season and the pace of life—combined with some of the unexpected challenges—has required a lot of me, and the one thing that quickly gets dropped from my schedule is space to simply enjoy life (read: ride my bike!). Not only that, one of the challenges I am facing at work is lack of clarity on where we need to be going as a church community as we emerge out of the Covid years. This ‘roadblock’ bothers me because that’s usually one thing I can sort out. I’m a terrible Pastor beside your hospital bed, but I can (usually) lead a community on the journey from A to B. This roadblock even becomes a distraction for me—inserting itself into my thoughts when I should be focussing on something else. Rock’s chapter reminds me that perhaps the most productive thing I can do is quit ‘working’ on this problem and let my brain ponder it under less duress.

Rock’s book also reminded me that a more sustainable schedule is necessary for me through the school months. On page 32 he comments that we need to, “become aware of your own mental energy needs and schedule accordingly.” (4) I have been letting my daughter’s volleyball practice schedule determine when I am doing school work. Unfortunately, that is usually between 8-10pm on weeknights and part of my ‘not flourishing season’ is being tired by 9pm and ready for sleep by 10:30pm. Not an ideal time to be asking my brain to engage! I need to do a reappraisal of my weekly schedule and make space for school work during my peak performance time.

Speaking of peak performance, let me end this rather depressing post with a positive: In the midst of this somewhat disorienting season of life, God has been graciously empowering me to find life in His Word and share that with His people on Sundays. What is interesting is that my desired /idealized timeline for sermon preparation and my actual ‘peak performance’ (Scene 5: Searching for the Zone of Peak Performance (5)) for sermon preparation doesn’t line up. I have tried to write sermons weeks in advance and it just doesn’t work for me. For a while, I tried to ‘force it’ but I soon realized that I could make much more progress in much less time in the week leading up to the Sunday I was speaking. While I need to be sensitive to the rest of the team’s needs as it relates to service production and tech, I have thankfully found a good routine that allows me to function effectively in one important area of my job.

(1) David Rock, Your Brain At Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2020
(2) Ibid., 32-44
(3) Ibid., 72-86
(4) Ibid., 32
(5) Ibid., 60-72

About the Author

Scott Dickie

9 responses to “My Brain (Doesn’t) Work”

  1. mm Kim Sanford says:

    I share your frustration with jumping from one thing to another and how that limits our effectiveness. Now that you’ve set yourself the goal of staying more focused on one thing at a time, how will you consciously keep that focus? Rock says, “Having explicit language for mental patterns gives you a greater ability to stop patterns emerging early on, before they take over.” So I wonder if you have or if it would be helpful to develop some “self-talk” for when you notice yourself getting distracted or tempted to jump from project to project.

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      Not sure if this is along the same lines, but I remember as a kid wondering why my grandpa (one of the hardest workers I have ever seen) used to take so many breaks. Later on, on a mission trip, we were working on a big project under a hot sun, and one of the missionaries kept forcing us to take breaks and sit down and have cookies. I remember feeling in the moment a resistance to stopping the work… it felt like we were being soft and that missionary was coddling us. But what I noticed was that those short, frequent breaks kept us actually more energized for longer. Is there a translation for mental focus?

      I certainly know that over this last week, Spring Break which for me translated to “get-everything-done-for-school” week, I found that setting a timer and forcing myself to get up after 1.5 to 2 hours and do something totally different had a positive impact on the focus and quality of my efforts.

      • Scott Dickie says:

        Jennifer…that’s not a bad plan…..but I would generally love to get to 2 hours without distraction at this point! I do think some thinking about managing technology needs to be considered in my case. Trying to focus and write a sermon with incoming emails certainly doesn’t help my current fragile focus.

        And an encouraging point: I actually thought about this post and yours and Kim’s reply when I was struggling with ‘writers block’ for my Easter sermon. After a few fruitless hours I recall thinking, “I should just set this aside and get back to it at another time.” I picked it up again today and made some positive headway (which is good considering Easter is only a few days away!).

    • Scott Dickie says:

      Good question Kim…two phrases I am embedding in my mind:

      1. “Stick to the plan, Scott”…is the one I’m hoping will act as my early warning signal that things are about to awry if I don’t re-focus.

      2. “Scattered Scott” is the non-shaming name I’ll call myself when I realize (a bit too late) that I’ve lost my way and need to do a more substantial re-calibrate of my focus and time.

      I’ll let you know if it works!

  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    You said your current reality is jumping from thing to thing — like juggling five things at once. It’s funny, I asked a dear friend yesterday how he was doing in pursuing his doctoral studies. That was his response — he’s currently juggling too many things. If you are planning to add blocks of time to help you focus on specfic issues, I’m curious whether or not you’ve read any of Cal Newport’s books or listened to his Deep Questions podcast. I thought David Rock sounded a lot like Newport when it came to time-blocking. Check out calnewport.com and see what he has to say about scheduling, time blocking, etc. I’ve found his stuff to be quite helpful and very practical.

    • Scott Dickie says:

      Thanks Travis….I took a look right after responding to Jennifer’s comment. Ironically, I mentioned the need to consider how I interface with technology and how that is contributing to my lack of focus…and then I went to his website and I saw his books…slightly relevant for me! Perhaps a summer read for me…..would you recommend one of his books above his others?

      • Travis Vaughn says:

        If you haven’t read any of his stuff, then I’d probably start with Deep Work, and depending how you absorb new content, you might listen to one or two of his podcasts and see what might be applicable.

  3. Cathy Glei says:

    I appreciate your framing. . . disoriented season. I do think that there are times that seem more hectic and disorienting than others. . . especially around times in our kids lives or overall busier times in a calendar year.

  4. mm John Fehlen says:

    Your post has hit a nerve with a bunch of us. We resonate. I’m glad you made a reference to Covid in your post, because I could not help but think that much of this can be chalked up to the last season. I don’t have my fingers on the data (which is starting to come in) but it’s showing issues of distraction, lethargy, fatigue, etc. This is true for pastors.

    Recently I renewed my commitment to something I had been doing pre-Covid (but I lost the plot for it, until very recently). I try to attach a “purpose” to each day of my week, knowing that stuff will creep in, but it at least gives me a rudder of sorts to work from.

    For me, my three purposes are:
    1. Train leaders
    2. Inspire followers
    3. Pastor a community

    I then break down my week to give it focus: ie: Sundays are about inspiring followers, Mondays are training leaders (it’s my staff, meetings day), Tuesday are sermon prep so it’s inspire followers, and Wednesday/Thursday I pastor my community as I hang out in coffee shops, etc.

    Hope that sparks some thoughts, I know your post sure did for ME!

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